Thoughts on Yellow Fever

A few days ago, husband John and I were on our way somewhere, probably out to eat, when I noticed, flitting around the car’s dashboard, a mosquito.

Normally, a mosquito wouldn’t cause me great amounts of alarm. After all, it’s July, I live in the South, and it was hot and humid. It’s expected, once in a while, to see and even be bitten by a mosquito.

But instead of my usual annoyance at having a mosquito in the car, I had a moment of abject terror. Why? Because at the time I was reading a book about the yellow fever.

In case you’re not familiar with yellow fever, which arrived in the United States from Africa, thanks to the slave trade, it sounds terrible.

Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti variety, to be exact. The symptoms include headache, fever, delirium, vomiting black stuff and literally turning yellow. If death comes, and it often does, it’s swift.

Yellow Jack Monster
This drawing, “Yellow Jack Monster,” by Matthew Somerville Morgan, 1839-1890, depicts “Yellow Jack,” another name for yellow fever, attacking a woman. Library of Congress.

In 1878, a particularly awful yellow fever epidemic hit the Mississippi River valley. According to some reports, it infected about 120,000 people, killing somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000. People were hysterical and everyone was worried about where “Yellow Jack” might strike next.

On this website, you can read more about the 1878 epidemic and look at drawings and other documents related to it.

One of the places yellow fever hit in 1878 was Hinds County, Miss. For those who read this blog regularly, Hinds County is one of the places I’m researching for a book I’m writing about a particular story from the overland slave trade.

Without going into lots of details, a few months ago, I was trying to find one of the “characters” in my book, a man named Beverly Mitchell. And by “find” I mean I was trying to find evidence of him, somewhere in the public record, after 1849. After much searching, I was having no luck.

After reading about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, however, I had a thought: “Maybe I can’t find Beverly Mitchell because he’s dead.” So, I tracked down a list of people who died of the yellow fever in Hinds County in 1878.

Sorry, Beverly, but I sincerely hoped you had died of yellow fever so I could move on to something else, but after scouring the list, I was disappointed — again, sorry, I’m a terrible person — not to find Beverly Mitchell among the dead.

In looking over the section on Dry Grove, one of the communities in Hinds County, I noticed lots of people with the same last names: five members of the Caston family, four Flewellens, five Stewarts and as many Williamses.

The same was true for other areas of the county. I can only imagine how terrified people were.

So, think about that the next time you see a mosquito fluttering around your car! You’re welcome!

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Yellow Fever

  1. I believe yellow fever was the bigger killer when they constructed the Panama Canal. It was in that time frame that Walter Reed developed a vaccine for yellow fever. When I lived in Colombia, one had to keep up (every ten years) one’s yellow fever vaccine, as Colombia is one of the few remaining places yellow fever is prevalent, in the lowlands equatorial jungle areas mostly.


    1. It’s a very scary disease! In the book I read, the prologue (I think it was) told the story of a family in Mississippi who had boarded themselves up in the house to try to fend off yellow fever. After days and days, a farm worker and former slave of the family pried the boards off to find almost everyone dead in this horrific scene. Scary stuff!


  2. I may be able to get some names to help research in Hinds county. Let me know. Have a friend who is Mgr or director in the state archives in Jackson and my son in law is director of HR.


    1. Thanks, Bob! I didn’t get to the state archives in Jackson (I was in Raymond the whole time), so I’ll look at their website and see if I need anything there. I can’t imagine I don’t need something!


  3. I’m hoping for a romantic end to Beverly Mitchell….maybe a duel? Have you looked at the site ….found lots of goodies on my path


    1. A duel would be great. Finding him anywhere (jail, mental hospital, cemetery) would be great! I don’t think I’ve looked for Beverly on yet. I’m currently thinking he ended up in the Houston suburbs. I’ve got the name of the town written down somewhere.


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